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Fast and Curious

De Ferran, the thinking man's driver, is going out on top

September 19, 2003|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

Race driver Gil de Ferran has this offbeat reputation, one hardly befitting a hard-charging race driver.

People describe him as quiet and thoughtful, teacher-like, almost scholarly, especially when it comes to the technology of his sport. Some call him "the Professor," and though he favors casual clothes, you can imagine him taking off his tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches just before getting into his race car.

That's not at all how De Ferran sees himself.

"I always thought my best attribute was speed," he said the other day.

Well, come to think of it ...

De Ferran, a Brazilian living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., could hardly have done what he has in racing just by thinking scholarly thoughts about gear ratios.

In nine seasons of Indy car racing, he has won 11 races -- among them the most prestigious of all, the Indianapolis 500, last May, only two months after severely injuring his back in a race at Phoenix -- 20 pole positions and two CART season championships. He has led 57 of the 158 races he has driven, finished in the top three 49 times, in the top 10 96 times.

You want speed? He holds the world closed-course record with a lap around California Speedway at 241.428 mph.

De Ferran will be back at the two-mile track in Fontana this weekend for Sunday's Indy Racing League Toyota 400. And because IRL stock-block cars aren't as fast as the turbocharged CART car he was driving three years ago, he won't be threatening his record.

This race, though, will carry other significance for De Ferran. It figures to be his last here and the second to last of his career.

In the quiet kind of surprise you might expect from "such a quiet guy," he announced a few weeks ago that this season would be his last. He'll drive here, then in the season-ender at Fort Worth next month, then walk away to ...

"I don't know," he said. "I'm looking forward to a new mountain for me to climb. I don't know yet what it is and I think I'd like to have a little break and spend some time with my family [he has two children, a girl and a boy] and be able to see some friends. There are people I'd like to spend more time with back in Brazil and in Europe [his wife, Angela, is from England]. Maybe I'll spend a little time doing that."

If that sounds a little vague, well, it isn't as if De Ferran, who will be 36 in November, has to hurry and find another job. And he's entirely comfortable with his decision.

"I'm sure over the coming years, I'll have some itches," he said. "But hopefully I'll resist them because it's hard enough to be competitive when you do it 100% of the time, as the sole focus of your life. That's the case with me now, and it has been for at least 15 years, and I don't go out there and win every race. To do this sporadically and be competitive is very hard."

By retiring now, at the top of his game, De Ferran figures he's doing it on his terms.

"I think underlying was the fact that I've had a good career, a satisfying career, a fulfilling career," he said. "For me, it would be very, very difficult to look back and think, 'I was quicker. I was a better driver once [and now] I'm not.'

"If I ever thought that, I shouldn't be driving and I guess I'm trying to catch myself at my peak, before I turn a corner I don't want to turn. Ideally, I would like to win my very last race -- and my last championship -- and say, 'OK, guys.'

"That may or may not be possible, but at least I will go out with the memory that, 'Hey, I didn't win [the championship] but I won my last Indy 500, I was fighting to the bitter end and I was as good as I ever was. That's it. New challenge, new mountain.' "

Being a thoughtful person, De Ferran didn't simply wake up one morning and say, "Gee, I think I'll retire today."

"I guess the thought started earlier this year," he said, "even before the season started. Before, I never questioned. But I guess it's not something you control -- it just comes from inside of you. It's probably my awareness of the fact that I am flattening out [as a driver], that I'm not on a steep climb anymore. I continue to get better every year, but now only a little better.

"I interpreted the fact that I was having these thoughts as very much a negative. The very fact that I'm in doubt is not a good sign. In racing, you're either 100% committed or.... I don't think there's any gray area."

He mentioned his thoughts to Penske teammate Helio Castroneves -- "I said, 'Get out of here! You've got to be kidding!' " Castroneves said -- and to car owner Roger Penske, who counseled him to think carefully about his decision but not let it interfere with the business at hand.

"So, this year, I'm committed, I'm motivated, I'm having a good time [driving]," De Ferran said. "By the time I made the decision, I'd already won the Indianapolis 500, I'd done a lot of good things, had a lot of fun. That's it. That's the last memory I want to have."

Regrets? He has a few.

"I regret trying to pass a guy in 1983 for the lead on the first lap and crashing out," he joked.

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